I saw a beautiful thing a couple of weeks ago and I wanted to tell you about it because, by its very nature, I can’t share it with you. And maybe that was the point. These days the accepted thing is to seek virality, maybe to put your spin on a meme and to send it out into the world hoping for a million views. Because attention is currency and it’s come to be how we place value on things. What I’m about to describe is on the opposite end of the continuum from whatever Kim Kardashian West is doing. Imagine working hard to create a layered and beautiful artistic performance that will be seen and enjoyed by no more than 60 people. I mean, what would be the point? Right? I’m talking an original story with elaborate props, costumes, shadow puppets, simulated stained glass windows, stage sets, food, and giant papier-mâché hands. True, the audience to effort ratio for the performing arts is much lower than for other media, due to their ephemerality. For example, I have a college friend who is a relatively successful playwright in New York and it’s been almost impossible for me to follow his career from my home in Wisconsin. But what I’m about to describe feels like it was specifically designed to be immune to digital virality and, in retrospect, I think that’s part of why I found it so thrilling.
Yonder and the Krampus
On a Saturday evening in early December, Don Krumpos* and his team presented “Krampus Claws Is Coming to Town” at Yonder, Krumpos’ art gallery and studio in Algoma, Wisconsin. Using a blend of storytelling, shadow play, illustrations made from simulated stained glass, and immersive theater, Krumpos and his troupe told an original story using elements of the German and Icelandic Christmas folk traditions. First, there was Krampus, St. Nick’s horned and bearded co-worker, who has been punishing the wicked children of Germany for centuries. This Christmas, Krampus discovered that morality is not as simple as black and white, that ‘bad’ kids are sometimes good kids in bad circumstances. Initially he’s perplexed by this moral ambiguity, but by the end of the show he’s taken it to heart and found a new role to play during Christmas. Then there was Gryla, a giantess who traditionally punishes the misbehaving children of Iceland with the help of the “Yule Lads” and her terrifying Yule Cat. (Apparently Iceland has a more interesting Christmas season than we do). In Yonder’s retelling, Gryla and her minions have been locked beneath the earth for a thousand years, bound by magical spells cast with air, water, and fire. And these bonds are weakening…
Enter the audience
“Krampus Claws” was divided into three acts with an intermission between each act. As the audience mingled and consumed Krampus-inspired snacks, treats, and ciders (both hot and alcoholic), costumed members of the troupe pulled individuals or small groups of people to visit with the spirits of water, air, and fire. Each of these experiences, which were elaborately presented in smaller spaces, yielded a token: a rubber “fireball,” a kazoo, and a small water pistol. Participants were asked to hang on to these and to keep them hidden. In the third ‘act,’ which was primarily conveyed using shadow puppets, Gryla and her brood slipped their bonds and prepared to wreak havoc on the children of Earth. But at the last minute they were turned back by Krampus, freshly motivated by his new, more nuanced moral understanding. In fact, he has come to see that it’s now Gryla who is misbehaving and in need of punishment. Finally, Krampus and the narrator of the story rallied the audience to defeat the Icelandic folk monsters, including the Yule Cat, with their fireballs, kazoos, and water pistols. Thus, another merry Christmas was assured and the balance of the universe maintained.
Nothing I write here (not even Joshua Clark’s photos, though they tell part of the story) can convey the sense of wonder that this production produced in the audience. We collectively gasped and laughed as all of the elements of the production converged at the end. Elements that may have felt absurdist and a little off-handed at the time were revealed to be dramatically important. It all felt cathartic and almost ritualistic… but without any of the self-seriousness that things too often have this time of year. As with everything Krumpos does—working alone or with his co-conspirators—from his beautiful prints to the murals he’s been painting in communities all over Wisconsin, every aspect of the event was beautifully detailed and well considered. This year’s Krampus costume was feral, like something out of a deep, medieval Alpine forest, and in an entirely different way than the equally beautiful Krampus figure he designed for the 2019 show (which is currently on display at Yonder’s storefront at 321 Steele Street in Algoma). The shadow puppets, which Krumpos has been experimenting with since producing a workshop with Minneapolis’s Michael Sommers, co-founder of Open Eye Theater, at UWGB seven years ago, were intricately cut and full of playful effects.
This is a type of experience that feels rare to me to me these days, it reminded me of a culture of artistic production that was more familiar to me in my 20s—back in the 1990s—long before the potential for virality demolished the idea that a thing could be done just for itself and just for the people fortunate enough to be in the room. That it was so creative, so well executed, and so beautiful just made it all the more precious. Krumpos says that these Krampus pageants (for lack of a better term) will continue… you should make a point of getting on his mailing list so you don’t miss out!
* Who is Don Krumpos? He is a muralist, printmaker, and multimedia artist who has been an art professor at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay.
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